Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): With respect to the hon. Gentleman, we have heard exactly the same speech from the Tory Front Bench for the past five years. What plans does he have to resolve the problems to which he referred?
Mr. Green: The simplest way for the Government to do so is by doing less. Instead of producing 1,000 years' worth of bureaucracy every 11 months, doing less would reduce the work load on teachers who would then have less unnecessary paperwork from the Government. [Interruption.] I know that Ministers believe that everything that comes out of the Department is a pearl of wisdom, but it does not work with teachers.
As ever, faced with the problems to which I have alerted the House, the Department tries to disguise them. As ever, the Government's first reaction to bad news is not to deal with the problem, but to bury the bad news. When, in February, they published "Statistics in Education: Teachers in England 2001", some statistics mysteriously did not even appear on the departmental website. It is rather a good website, often containing loads of information. Funnily enough, however, some figures did not appear. For example, nearly 300,000 qualified teachers under 60 are no longer in the education system; 83,400 people hold teaching certificates that they have never used, in an era of acute teacher shortages; and the number of teacher vacancies in England and Wales rose
The Government have made a response, however. I must be fair to them. The Government have noticed that the work load is a problem and their response isa poster. At first glance, I was relieved that they had produced a poster rather than a 50-page document, but when I actually read the section "Advice and guidance on what schools can do", I found that the first piece of advice was to read circular 2/98. So the Government have produced a circular telling teachers how to reduce their work load.
The poster has three other sections: one is pure party political propagandapaid for by the taxpayer. A second section consists of a pie chart telling teachers what they already knowthat they are wasting their time reading Government information when they could be teaching or planning lessons. The final section states that:
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): My hon. Friend is probably aware that the Government commissioned a report from PricewaterhouseCoopers which highlighted the embarrassing fact that head teachers were working up to 60 hours a week. The Government's response was to bury the report so deep in the departmental website that the search engine could not even find it.
The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Estelle Morris): That is a serious accusation. I should not normally intervene during the opening speech of an Opposition spokesperson, but if someone was trying to bury that bad news, why is that very report currently before the School Teachers Review Body? The STRB is receiving evidence not only from the Government but from every teacher union and association. It will report in public in due course and we shall respond in public. That is the worst way of burying bad news I have ever heard of.
Mr. Green: Even the right hon. Lady could not keep a report commissioned by the STRB from the STRB. What she did not want was that it should be found by journalists, Opposition politicians or people who might be interested in studying it.
The right hon. Lady can argue until she is blue in the face but the plain fact is facing her: she, as Secretary of State, is presiding over the current rash of strikes. Like her, I do not approve of industrial action that damages the education of children. I am happy to admit that she is right about that.
If the hon. Gentleman is so keen on cutting teachers' work load, will he explain whether he supports the policy of his right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), who wants to cut public spending to 35 per cent. of gross domestic product? How will those cuts do anything other than increase the work load in the education system and destroy the morale of teachers?
Mr. Green: The hon. Lady should pay greater attention to the extremely good speeches of my right hon. and learned Friend the shadow Chancellor. He has made it clear that the first priority of the Conservative party is to match public spending on our essential public services. Those services are our main priority. I know that the Government find that difficult because, to refer to a topical subject, their fox has been shot.
To return to the current rash of strikes, which the Government are understandably not keen to talk about, many parents feel a degree of sympathy with teachers who have been driven to the brink by the type of Government interference and micromanagement that I have been outlining. The latest edition of the NUT magazine, The Teacher, states:
I particularly recommend this month's edition of The Teacher; it has a good centre-page spread detailing my trip to Germany with a senior NUT official. It sets out the points on which we agreed and disagreed. The House may be relieved to know that at least one of the major parties can still have friendly relations with trade unions even when we disagree on several points. I commend that lesson to the Government, which is run by a party that used to aspire to that as well.
I am delighted to be assured by both head teachers' unions that, if they end up taking industrial action, it will not affect teaching in schools. I hope that the Secretary of State would agree that, if they do take industrial action, it is much better that it should not affect teaching and learning. However, I hope that the Government are taking on board the historic nature of the possibility of industrial action by the two head teachers' unions. I am afraid that the aggressive rhetoric that Ministers are using about head teachers is making the situation worse, not better.
Mr. Chaytor: Does the hon. Gentleman recall speaking to the north of England education conference in January of this year, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Education and Skills? Does he specifically recall being forced to admit in his opening remarks that he could not say very much because his party did not have a policy on education? Have things changed since January? If there has been a change, given that he has been speaking for more than 20 minutes, will he tell us what it is?
Mr. Green: I very much enjoyed the Huddersfield conferenceI was applauded and given a friendly reception. Everyone thereexcept possibly the hon. Gentlemanthought that what I told them in my opening remarks was entirely sensible. I said that, at the beginning of a Parliament, it is entirely sensible for Opposition parties to think through their policies, so that what they produce is not half-baked. If Labour Members are saying that we should have a fully fledged policy in six months, it is not unreasonable to ask why the Government have miserably failed to produce a coherent education policy after five years in power, following 18 years in opposition.
The Government have to take decisions day after day on the basis of no coherent policy. We shall work out a coherent and robust education policy that will improve standards in our schools, rather than relying on the hand-to-mouth, initiative-driven system that the Government have been forced to introduce, precisely because they have no coherent thinking on education.
Ministers frequently say that head teachers are paid to make tough choices, but that just gives rise to hollow laughs in staff rooms around the country. With every month that passes, head teachers' ability to take decisions is restricted by the Government's constant interference. But suddenly, when the decision is tough, there is no Government guidance at alljust a cry of "yours" as the hospital pass is delivered.
The third group of problems stems from the Government's weakness in tackling issues that they find inconvenient. The best example of that is their many and varied policies on excluding disruptive pupils. For a long time, the Government simply set a target for permanent exclusions to be cut by a third. Understandably, the result has been a decline in the number of exclusions. Those targets prevented head teachers from expelling violent or disruptive pupils, damaging the education of thousands of pupils throughout the country.
The Secretary of State should know that the NUT has found that 45 per cent. of teachers leaving the profession cited pupil behaviour as the reason for doing so. She should also know that that is a direct consequence of a policy introduced by her predecessor. Ofsted cited
Let me quote an example sent in response to a survey on our own education websitewww.conservatives.com/education, which I commend to all who are interested in education. I believe that there is no provision in "Erskine May" to prevent me from reading out a website address, and I hope that it will be helpful to the House to do so.
The fourth area where the Government have contributed to the crisis is their broken promises. The worst of these is on truancy. In 1998, the Government announced that they planned to cut unauthorised absences from school. They promised a reduction of one third in school truancies by 2002. There has been no reduction in the percentage of half days missed a year through unauthorised absence. It remains at 0.7 per cent. Indeed, the percentage has risen since 1996-97 in maintained secondary schools, from 1 per cent. to 1.1 per cent. Perhaps that is not one of the figures handed out by the Government Whips to Labour Members who wanted to quote figures from 1997 onwards.
A helpful written answer from one of the Department's Ministers told us that if we add together the authorised and unauthorised absences in every category, including primary schools and secondary schools, the number of half days missed increased significantly between 1999-00 and 2000-01. It has risen from 5.7 per cent. in primary schools to 6.1 per cent. In secondary schools, it has increased from 8.6 per cent. to 9 per cent.
Given these alarming figures, the social exclusion unitthe Government's central unit dealing with these matterssays that the national truancy rate has remained static. That requires a flexible use of languagethe rate seems to be increasing rather than remaining static.
Another broken promise is on higher education. The Government promised us their review of student support early in the new year. It is 19 March, and quite late in the new year. There is still no sign of the review. I recall a Minister talking about June. It is one of the Government's announcements that is always three months away. We think that the Government should publish their findings as soon as possible and end the uncertainty in which they have left both students and universities.